During January and February of 2012, my wife and I spent some
four weeks in Israel on a program called Canadian and American Active Retirees for
Israel – CAARI.
The CAARI program is affiliated with the Jewish
National Fund (JNF). It provides active seniors the opportunity to become familiar
with Israeli culture and to connect with Israel’s people. The CAARI Program includes
community service, tours, and speakers’ forums. As part of the 2012 CAARI program,
we visited the Beit Gidi Etzel Museum 1947-1948.
The Beit Gidi Etzel Museum is a sleek glass rectangular
structure built over the ruins of a former Ottoman building. It is located on the southern
end of the Tayelet (the promenade that runs along the Tel Aviv beach), just north
of Jaffa and just west of the Neve Tzedek section of Tel Aviv.
The museum is small and not particularly impressive. Except for a
presentation by and meeting with the museum curator, Yoske, the museum would not have
rated more than an hour’s worth of time. Meeting with Yoske (short for Yoseph),
on the other hand, was more than worth all the time we spent at this museum.
Before being incorporated into the Israel Defense Forces
(IDF) in 1948, Etzel was one of 3 Jewish paramilitary forces (Etzel, the
Haganah and Lehi) that fought both the British and the Arabs to win Jewish
The museum portrays the history of the Etzel movement and
its campaigns from the time of the UN resolution that established the Jewish state until the
movement’s dissolution in 1948. The central exhibit is about the battle for Jaffa,
and commemorates the 41 Etzel soldiers who fell in the battle.
The Irgun Tzvai Leumi (Etzel) paramilitary movement was
formed in 1931 based on Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s philosophy that: “every Jew had the
right to enter Palestine; only active retaliation would deter the Arabs; only Jewish
armed force would ensure the Jewish state“. The Etzel retaliated against Arab
attacks against Jews, and rebelled against the British “white paper” which limited the
immigration of Jews to Israel.
In April 1948, Menachem Begin was the Irgun (Etzel)
leader. He sent 600 Irgun fighters into the battle for Jaffa, under the
command of Amichai “Gidi” Paglin. The Irgun conquered Jaffa after
a few days of battle, but 41 fighters lost their lives.
In 2012, Yoske was then a very young 86 years of age. In 1940,
he forged his birth certificate to join the British Army at the age of only 14. He spent the
next 6 years in the British Army but, throughout this time, he was also a member of the
Irgun under the command of Menachem Begin. He served in several campaigns
against the Germans and was wounded in Sicily. His English became so good that he was able
to pass himself off as a British soldier and enter a British prison and organize the release
of Irgun prisoners. Yoske took part in a number of operations against the
British forces in Palestine, including attacks and the appropriation of British weapons and
ammunition, badly needed by the Jewish paramilitary forces. Yoske was eventually
captured by the British and imprisoned in the infamous Acre prison. He was one of the 28
Jewish prisoners that were rescued during the famous Jewish attack on the Acre
The Acre prison break took place on May 4, 1947. The
Irgun broke through the walls of Acre prison and freed 28 incarcerated
Irgun and Lehi members. At the time, the citadel in the old city of
Acre was used as a prison. In total, the prison contained 700 Arab prisoners and
90 Jewish prisoners, the latter mainly members of the Jewish underground groups Haganah,
Lehi, and Irgun, who had been captured by the British.
The breakut was originally planned for April, but was eventually
rescheduled for Sunday, May 4, 1947, at 4 p.m., the day the United Nations General Assembly
convened to discuss the Palestine issue. The Irgun purchased a truck, a jeep, two
military pickup trucks and civilian vehicles, which were then disguised as British vehicles.
British army uniforms were also acquired, as were civilian clothes to help the escapees
assimilate into the population.
On Sunday, May 4, 1947, 34 Jewish guerilla fighters attacked the
prison. In the course of the retreat, 3 fighters from the attacking force were killed.
Another 5 fighters were captured by the British, along with 8 escapees. 28 Lehi
and Irgun prisoners escaped, as did 182 Arab prisoners.
Yoske was later caught and court-martialed. He was
sentenced as a traitor, and condemned to death by firing squad. His sentence was commuted
to 15 years imprisonment, but he only served 13 months before being released. As he put
it to us: "Almighty God did not want us so soon". He resumed his Irgun activities
and was subsequently wounded in the legs and neck.
An interesting item that Yoske showed us was a copy of
the wanted notice issued by the British for his capture. The notice shows his picture, a
physical description of him and the identification of his nationality as “Palestinian”.
This clearly shows that, prior to 1948, Jewish and Arab residents of what we now
call Israel were all Palestinians. Arabs were Palestinian Arabs and Jews were Palestinian
Jews. There was no national Arab entity identified as Palestinian. Palestine simply referred
to all the land between Lebanon and the Sinai and between the Mediterranean Sea and the
Jordan River (and prior to the carve-out of Trans-Jordan by the British in the 1920’s, also
to the land between the Jordan River and modern Iraq).
Yoske was involved in the “Atalena Affair” and may
have saved the life of Menachem Begin. The Altalena Affair was a violent
confrontation that took place in June 1948 between the newly formed Israel Defense
Forces (IDF) and the Irgun (Etzel). The confrontation involved a cargo ship,
the Altalena (a pseudonym of Ze'ev Jabotinsky), which sailed from France
and carried a large supply of weapons purchased with funds from Etzel members and
sympathizers, along with fighters for the Irgun . On board the ship were
Yoske and his wife, Yafa.
On 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was established and on 1 June,
Etzel joined the newly established IDF. On 20 June 1948, the
Altalena arrived at the beach of Tel Aviv. There was a dispute
between the newly formed government of Israel and Etzel over the disposition
of the weapons.
The new Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, ordered
the IDF to confiscate all weapons and ammunition. Menachem Begin, who had
meanwhile boarded the Altalena, was given only 10 minutes to accede to an IDF
ultimatum. When he did not respond to the demand, Ben-Gurion ordered the IDF
to take the ship by force and at 4:00 p.m., Ben-Gurion ordered the shelling of
the Altalena. Both small arms and cannon fire were directed at the Altalena.
One of the shells hit the ship, which began to burn. The IDF's firing on the ship
resulted in a number of killed and wounded. Begin ordered the Etzel fighters
on board the Altalena not to return fire.
The ship’s captain ordered all aboard to abandon ship. People jumped
into the water, while their comrades on shore set out to meet them on rafts. Begin,
who was on deck, refused to leave until everyone else had been evacuated, saying that as the
"captain" of Etzel, he would be the last to abandon ship. Yoske told Begin
that he might be the "captain" of Etzel, but he was not captain of the ship and, along
with other Etzel members, placed a life jacket on Begin and forced him
into the water, possibly saving his life. Begin much later said, "My greatest
accomplishment was not retaliating and causing civil war".
There were 3 other interesting incidents associated with the
Altalena and Yoske. (1) Yoske’s brother, Shalom was a
member of the IDF on the shore and was ordered to fire on the Altalena.
Unaware that his brother and sister-in-law were on the ship, he refused the order to fire
on his fellow Jews. (2) Yoske showed us a television film made in 2006 in which
another Irgun member who was on the Altalena came to the museum and met
him for the first time since 1948. The visitor recognized Yoske by his eyes. This
was a man called Yulyo and he had spent all the years after 1948 in Cuba and
the USA, refusing until 2006 to visit Israel because of the attack on the ship by the
IDF. The film showed the reunion of the men after an interval of 58 years and
Yulyo thanking Yoske for saving his life when he was wounded and
drowning in the sea as the ship came under attack. In the film, Yulyo and Yoske
were in tears. (3) At the time of the signing of the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979,
Yoske was a flight attendant with El Al and was on the plane carrying Menachem
Begin to the peace treaty signing ceremony in America. A bed had been installed on the
aircraft for Begin and it was suggested that he go to bed and rest up for the ceremony.
When Begin found out that only he had a bed, he refused, saying, if no one else had
a bed, then he wouldn’t sleep in one. Later, Yoske again urged the Prime Minister to
go to bed. Begin responded by saying that Yoske was playing mother to him
again, just as he had done in 1948 when he threw him into the sea.
Having met Yoske was the equivalent of meeting a person who,
in American history, had been an active participant in the American revolution, someone who
had lived before, during and after our War of Independence and had played an active part in
helping to create our nation. Yoske’s story was amazing and a powerful exposition
of events that took place before, during and after the establishment of the State of Israel.
The visit to the Beit Gidi Etzel Museum resulted in a meeting with "someone who was
there." Yoske was not just there, he was a participant in the historic events
that were taking place. It is not often that one gets the chance to meet such a person.
My wife and I were blessed with the opportunity to do so.